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Mass Effect on the 360 was initially branded as playing loose and easy with gratuitous sex scenes. Now the fuss has died down I spent some time with Shepard and discovered a grown up game that took seriously broad relational gameplay. Rather than sex being a cheap trick it was genuinely part of an interesting interpersonal canvas.
Mass Effect is an epic sci-fi role-playing game set in 2183, and you play as Commander Shepard, who captains the experimental spaceship SSV Normandy. You're tearing the universe apart searching for an elite operative called Saren who's gone rogue and has taken to stealing ancient artefacts and murdering his former colleagues.
When it was first released in November 2007, Mass Effect caused a furore in the mainstream press. The reason? The developers had dared to include a romantic sub-plot and a cut scene depicting sex between a man and a woman, or, if you were playing as a woman and preferred it - a mono-gendered but distinctly female alien. Right-wing blogger Kevin McCullough branded the game "virtual, orgasmic rape," and claimed that gamers could use it to "sodomise whatever, whomever, however" they wished.
I have to confess when I played the game I was eagerly awaiting the sex scene.
A report on Fox News was similarly hyperbolic - according to them "players get to engage in graphic sex" which "leaves nothing to the imagination". Mass Effect was tagged by a panellist as 'Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas.' Psychology specialist Cooper Lawrence was drafted on to the show to talk about how the game over-sexualised women. Singapore, nervous about the technically-lesbian in-game action, went into a flurry of panic and banned the title.
The dust settled, and both McCullough and Lawrence apologised. When shown the actual scene in question, Lawrence appeared to be a little embarrassed and said that she thought than an episode of TV drama Lost would probably be racier. Nobody really understood where all the talk of sodomy had come from. Singapore, after banning the game for a grand total of a day, decided after sleeping on it to un-ban it and release it with an M18 certificate instead.
After reading so much about it online and having followed the controversy, I have to confess when I played the game I was eagerly awaiting the sex scene. I had actually planned on trying to get two in - for uh, you know, research - having attracted interest from both Liara T'Soni, the blue skinned, mono-gendered alien and Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko. I was disappointed when the pair made me choose between them. In the end, I took the more conventional route and opted for the male love interest.
If the sex had not been included at all, it would make the game seem a little unrealistic.
Both relationships required a lot of work - you need to first get to know your potential partner(s) by taking time to talk to them at length. You also sometimes need to pick the right responses from a choice of dialogue options. Once you've won their heart, you're treated to a brief amorous cut scene. While not entirely the same, this reminded me of Japanese dating sims, which employ a similar mechanism for unlocking love scenes - you have to say the right things, do the right things, and buy the right gifts.
None of the people who had decried Mass Effect as the end of civilisation as we know it had actually played it. Clearly the controversy seemed to be based on a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of sex in a game. The male playable character and female NPC version even involves reciting poetry for god's sake. Poetry!
A lot of gamers posting on forums complained that it was all a bit artsy and short and they were disappointed - even they seemed to make the mistake that including some kind of sex scene in a game would be a really big deal. It wasn't. It was essentially an optional sub-plot that fit perfectly with the tone of the rest of the game - any more explicit and it would have seemed out of place. If the sex had not been included at all, it would make the game seem a little unrealistic. People hook up. If they didn't, the human race would have died out pretty fast. Given the circumstances that Shepard and crew found themselves in, it's easy to see how close relationships would be formed.
Ironically for a game that has been accused of 'over-sexualising women', it's actually very female-friendly to play. Your character may be called Commander Shepard, but pretty much everything else is up to you. Very, very cleverly, this includes your gender, hence the moniker Commander as opposed to a first name, and a lot of ambiguously scripted dialogue which could work with either gender. I applauded the fact that I had the option of being a woman - as a woman I prefer to play a woman if I have the choice.
Games are growing up and starting to tackle mature themes.
Aside from gender, you then choose what your version of Commander Shepard is going to look like, from a satisfying array of different choices including hair styles, skin colour, facial features and scars. But BioWare take it a step deeper than most by also letting you choose your own backstory.
One of the big strengths of the game is the multi-faceted characters and the way you can talk to them at length through many hours of dialogue. 'Because it is so focused on relationships, I think a sex scene was an entirely appropriate thing to include.
Games are growing up and starting to tackle mature themes. I hope other developers won't let the hysteria that surrounded Mass Effect stop them from doing this and from including love scenes in future titles. It certainly won't stop BioWare - CEO Ray Muzyka has already announced that Mass Effect 2 will also feature some, as he puts it, "emotionally engaging moments."
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: